Edited by Michelle McLaren
Driving to work this morning, I think about Ben. It’s been eight months since he vanished. The longest he’s ever been away. Can’t he bring himself to return? Even for me? If I had known that first week’s absence when he was seventeen was going to be the shortest, I’d have saved up my worries. Little beads of heartache placed next to beads of love on a string without end. Like Mum’s rosaries rattling in a drawer.
The shopping centre sign looms ahead and I bury Ben deep down in his own special vault in my heart. It’s easy to do. Plenty of practice.
The staff carpark is nearly full when I arrive. Inside the centre, my shoes click on the polished floor as I walk to the shop. Fluoros stutter behind see–through shutters as workers set up for the day. The gift shop, next door to our bookshop, is swathed in darkness, shapes looming under cloth covers. I unlock the rolling shutter and duck under when it’s halfway up.
I flick the switch and rows of books are lit up, silent and waiting. I start on the display shelves, smirking at the literature considered suitable for Mother’s Day gifts. Judging by the number of detective novels and true crime on the bestseller lists, there are lots of women out there with murder on their minds.
I’m nearly finished when Julie pokes her head under the shutters and crawls into the store.
‘Hey,’ she says inspecting my handiwork. ‘Coffee?’
I shake my head and perch the giant cardboard knife on top of the display, blade pointing at the books.
‘I had a shit night. The usual. You know?’ she calls out from the kitchen, clinking a spoon into a cup.
‘What happened?’ I ask, already knowing what she’ll say.
‘Fuckin’ Rob. He promised he was coming over. I cancelled something else to stay in and the dick never showed. No nothing. No phone call, no message. Nuthin’.’
I join her in the kitchenette as the kettle shrieks and clicks off. She pours water into her cup and stirs the black liquid.
‘I know what you’re going to say. I should just break up with him. I know I should.’ She blows on the coffee before taking a tentative sip.
I look at her. What I want to say is you can’t break up with someone who isn’t in the same relationship as you, but I don’t. She’ll work it out.
‘Anyway, what did you get up to?’ she asks.
‘Out with Michelle, dinner at the Thai place and then we went to the Red. Went to a couple more places after that. Got home at three.’
She looks at me, lips pinched. ‘Did you pick up?’
‘No,’ I lie.
She shakes her head. I wish for the millionth time I’d never told her anything. All I get for my candid moment is judgement and you-are-ruining-your-life, think-of-what-you-have, you’re-going-to-lose-everything, and other variants on those themes.
‘Ciggie?’ she suggests.
We head for the loading dock. Today will be hectic with people rushing around to find gifts to prove to their mothers they are loved and cherished. For this one day. Lucky mums. We stand near the garbage bins, twin streams of smoke snaking out of our mouths, momentarily disturbing the smell of rotting fruit stagnant in the air. I take care not to ash into Julie’s coffee cup on the ground next to us. Centre management doesn’t like staff smoking in view of the main carpark. It puts off the customers apparently. Puts them off what?
I take the last couple of drags from my cigarette and shock bolts through me. It’s Ben. He’s walking towards us from the oil disposal unit, his usual red hoodie zipped to the chin, hood up. He’s home. My little brother has come home. And then. I see it’s not him at all. It’s the wanker from the fish and chip shop.
‘Hi Julie,’ he says, conspicuously ignoring me.
‘Oh, hi,’ she replies, in that stupid exaggerated way she talks to men.
‘What?’ she asks, when she catches the face I’m pulling at his retreating back.
‘Nothin’. He’s a dickhead.’
‘So you’ve always said. Tell me why he’s a dickhead.’
‘He just is.’ I grind out my cigarette, unwilling to share any more with her. Ever again.
How could I have thought he was Ben? Knots tie themselves in my stomach and my head spins. Not now.
We return to the shop and I roll the shutters all the way up. Julie pulls out the CDs she’s brought to play in the shop. We are officially open — and already flat out. I don’t even have time for a mid-morning smoke. Helpless husbands with smiling children buy books they are too lazy to gift wrap. Men buy how to breastfeed books for their expectant partners. A few buy books on what happens to a woman’s body after giving birth. One such man is grinning so widely at me that I think his face might crack in two like a pistachio shell.
She’s pregnant. She already fucking knows what’s going to happen after the birth. If you want to give her a good Mother’s Day present, finger her till she squirts all over your hand. That’ll keep her going for a couple of weeks. I hand him the wrapped book instead.
It’s finally my turn for lunch. Two cigarettes and a chocolate thickshake is all I have time for. Like all the other gurning morons, I too have to buy a last-minute gift. But what to get? My mother doesn’t like candles, chocolates. She doesn’t believe in buying books – the library is her treasure trove. She doesn’t like jewellery, still has full perfume bottles from the eighties and isn’t into music.
I settle on an egg timer and perfume, hating myself. She’ll use the egg timer for her cakes and add the perfume to her unopened collection. Does she even possess the ability to surprise anyone?
I’m cooking lunch for her and Dad tomorrow. I should have taken her up on the suggestion of going out. I can see it now. Mick will come over early to help and the four of us will cram into my studio, chewing and chewing. Not talking about Ben.
Then in the evening, Mick and I at his mother’s place for dinner. While she talks too much about my family. How hard it must be for Mum on today of all days. As a mother, she can only imagine what she must be going through. God. One more year. One more year. And then… my escape. Another city. Another country, even. Perhaps.
I take my shitty purchases to the front parking lot of the shopping centre and sit on an unoccupied bench. Cars edge up and down the narrow strips looking for empty spaces. My phone buzzes in my bag. I bring it to my ear, balance it against my shoulder and light a cigarette. Mick’s big deep voice floods my ear. I love the sound of his voice. Pity I can’t bottle it and throw away the rest.
‘Hi babe, how are you?’
Petals of irritation unfurl. How many times have I told him not to call me that?
‘I’m fine. Work’s full-on today. How’s you?’ I’m doing an excellent job at keeping my tone light.
‘Yeah alright. About to head out to Danno’s and maybe go for a surf later. What time do you finish?’
‘Six, but listen, is it okay if you don’t come over tonight? Shell and I had a big one last night and I just need sleep and to get shit done at home.’
He’s quiet for so long I think the call’s cut out. Finally, he breathes into my ear.
‘Yeah, whatever you want. You know we haven’t seen each other since last Saturday.’
I roll my eyes, so what? It doesn’t mean anything. Why are all my weekends spoken for because we’re in a relationship?
I steady the tremor in my hands in case it’s made its way into my voice. I hate sounding shrill. I inhale, but just breathe in a load of car exhaust fumes for my trouble.
‘Look, I’m sorry, but I really need to do some stuff at home tonight on my own. I was going to do some housework and get some readings done for next week. It’s final year and the pressure’s on. Let’s do something during the week, yeah? Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow for lunch and dinner.’ I emphasise the and.
‘Yeah okay,’ he says slowly but I can tell he’s not happy.
He’ll tell Danno about our change of plans. How I want to be on my own tonight. Danno will say what he always says, dude, you’re like the chick in the relationship. He’ll drink too many beers and show up at my house tomorrow, deep smudges under his eyes and stale, sour breath.
‘Anyway,’ I change the subject. ‘You need to get a present for your mum for tomorrow.’
He groans. ‘Fuck, I forgot. Are you sure you can’t pick something up for her?’
‘No, we made a deal this year. I buy for my mum and you buy for yours.’
He groans again. ‘Okay, what did you get your mum then?’
I laugh, feeling the emptiness of the evening stretch before me like a promise. ‘I’m hanging up now. See you in the morning.’
I accidentally hang up while he’s telling me he loves me.
Fifteen minutes till the end of my break. Time for another cigarette. A white Commodore pulls up in front of me and stops next to the entrance to the centre. A man gets out and comes to the passenger side. His wife winds down the window and hands him a list. She juts her head out to give him last minute instructions. An old lady sits in the back seat, head lolling onto the headrest, mouth gently open, eyes closed. She looks a little like Nanna. What the fuck is wrong with me today?
I light a cigarette and my phone bleeps. An SMS. I love you. I put the phone back in my pocket. I don’t need to say it to Mick every time he says it to me. It’s tedious.
The woman in the car sticks her head out and stares towards the sliding doors through which her husband has just disappeared. He’d better hurry up, this is a fifteen–minute parking zone, and I’m in the mood to enforce it. I spot the parking attendant and keep him in my sight.
The car is close enough so I can hear her speaking to the old lady in the backseat.
‘John’s just getting some stuff for lunch, Mum,’ she says, mostly out of the window. When she doesn’t get a response, she turns in her seat and unclicks the seatbelt.
‘Mum? Oh Mum, don’t sleep now. You know you should wait till after lunch. Remember the doctor said that too many naps in the day isn’t good for you. Mum, wake up!’
There is still no response, and I’m amused. Imagine having a daughter who won’t even let you have a quick snooze. What a bitch. She’s probably faking it to shut her up. Then the old lady’s head rolls towards me eyes still closed. Fuck, she looks a lot like Nanna. I take a long drag on my cigarette. This Mother’s Day bullshit must be getting to me. It is the first one without Nanna and Ben, so maybe. Stop it. What’s the point? She’s not your Nanna and Ben’s gone.
The woman launches into a story about a neighbour and their fence. It’s boring — and helps my mind skitter away from my thoughts. I could fall asleep listening to it, no wonder the poor old lady is out. Her voice gets louder as the story goes on, till she finishes it almost on a shout.
There is no response from the old lady. The woman opens her door and gets out. She opens the back door and bends in to her mother.
Shaking her by the shoulder, she yells directly into the old lady’s ear. ‘Mum, come on wake up. John will be back any minute now.’
She squats awkwardly and picks up her mother’s thin hand. A cry strangles in my throat.
I know by looking at her what’s happened. Oh God. Oh fuck. What should I do?
Another voice thunders, it’s fine. This is not you. This is not your family. But I know. Just like I knew with Nanna. Because this thing. Looks the same. Regardless of whose family it is.
The woman is clasping her mother’s hand and now touches her face with the other. ‘Mum?’
‘Mum!’ the woman produces a scream heavy with awful understanding.
She stands and looks around, panic etching lines across her forehead. I look away. There is nothing that can be done.
‘John! Someone, please help me. My mother needs help. Something’s wrong.’ Her voice breaks on the last word.
One of the cleaners, Brian, drops his broom and rushes over, hand on his walkie talkie. He looks like a sad version of a hero from an action movie. A couple move in closer, the young woman asking what’s wrong. I stand and walk into the centre through the sliding doors. The air-conditioning blows stale, hot air down the back of my neck. They will all come now. Sharks circling at the smell of blood.
I pass the husband, John, making his way back to the car, laden with groaning plastic bags.No point in telling him. He’ll find out soon enough. Let him have his extra minute of happy oblivion. The lights in the centre burn bright and sting my eyes. Sounds come at me like I’m underwater.
The shop throngs with customers and, after throwing my stuff into the locker, I head for onewearing a gormless expression. Still three hours before I can leave. Julie needs me behind the till. I stand beside her dumbly, tracing the number eight on the register keypad, over and over.
Driving home after work, I think about Ben. It’s been eight months since he vanished. The longest he’s ever been away. Can’t he bring himself to return? Even for me?
Natasha Rai is a Sydney-based writer whose story, The Gatekeepers, about the culture of silence in Indian families to control female narratives appears in Australia’s first #MeToo anthology, published by Picador in April 2019. Her first novel was longlisted for the 2017 Richell Prize and 2018 KYD Unpublished Manuscript award. She is currently working on her third novel. You can find out more about Natasha on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.